North Koreans living in South Korea say the North's military program is responsible for the country's poverty and hunger and they fear their countrymen in the North will not even find out the mission failed.
North Korea's failed attempt to launch a rocket into space on Friday is a grim reminder to those who've fled the repressive nation that nothing has changed under the leadership of Kim Jong Un. Some defectors had hoped that when Kim, who is only in his late 20s, assumed power last December that the lives of ordinary North Koreans might improve. That's because as a boy, Kim studied in Switzerland and might have learned a thing or two about human rights.
But that appears not to be the case, says Han Gi-hong of the Committee for Democratization in North Korea, an organization comprised of refugees in Seoul.
"Kim Jong Un has no interest in the lives of the people. He is only interested in the survival of the regime," he said during a press conference on Friday.
Military first politics
Human rights groups have long accused the Pyongyang regime of favoring its weapons program over feeding its people. In the 1990s, a famine is believed to have killed over one million North Koreans, the result of a broken-down public distribution system and the end of support from the Soviet Union. Since then, the nation has experienced chronic food shortages and is unable to feed its population without the help of international donors.
Food scarcity is the reason why most of the 23,000 North Korean refugees that now live in the South fled their homeland. And their concern for the family and friends they left behind increases whenever North Korea flexes its military muscles, such as its long-range rocket and nuclear tests. And many defectors say the international community's focus on the North's weapons programs often overshadows the ongoing human rights violations.
"Its weapons program and the food crisis is related, they could buy food if they didn't create these weapons," said 24-year old Park Gun-ah.
Park and several other refugees held banners denouncing the North Korean regime, calling for an end to its military first policy. Han Gi-hong put today's rocket launch into perspective.
"It cost 850 million dollars to make this missile. That money could buy food for 19 million people for a full year."
North Korean spin
The North Korean propaganda machine had painted the space-bound Unha-3 rocket, which was said to be carrying a weather satellite, as a symbol of the nation's rise to an era of power and prosperity. The regime invited dozens of foreign journalists to cover the launch. But even though the satellite crashed into the Yellow Sea just moments after take off, some defectors here say the Pyongyang government will put a spin on the incident so it still seems like a success to the North Korean people.
"Even though North Korea has admitted that the launch was a failure, they will come up with explanations as to why it crashed, like blaming it on foreign forces," says Seo Jae-pyoung, who defected from the North ten years ago.
"Ordinary North Korean people won't have access to the real details of what happened."
It's unclear if the rocket's failure will ruin the mood ahead of this weekend's festivities to mark what would have been the 100 th birthday of founding ruler Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of the current leader. Despite all of the nation's problems, refugees say most North Koreans still greatly admire the elder Kim, who died in 1994. And their affection for the "Eternal President" doesn't always go away once they defect.
"For refugees who have been here only a short period of time, they might still have that feeling," Seo says. "But the longer you live here, the longer you learn the true history, you gradually begin to understand that Kim Il Sung wasn't what we were made to believe."
Author: Jason Strother, Seoul
Editor: Sarah Berning